Friday, December 2, 2016

College Education

Electoral College votes tallied in Congress, January 2013

It’s become quite obvious that American politics is broken.  And not just because a malign and ignorant huckster has been elected president, though that is certainly the most glaring symptom of a disease that’s been worsening for decades.  And the real source of our debilitating political dysfunction is our profound ideological polarization.  We’ve split into two roughly equal and mutually hostile camps, with seemingly incompatible instincts and visions of America.  But a well-designed institutional framework might have channeled those deep disagreements into constructive compromise, or better represented them in government such that consensus or conciliation might be reached.  But our Constitution seems utterly incapable of handling or moderating our deep disagreements.  Consider how, in the Obama Era, the dubious notion of Separation of Powers actually exacerbated that deadly polarization, leading to such excesses as the government shutdowns, the debt limit crises, the Obamacare wars.  And consider that an incredibly polarizing and dangerously incompetent extremist has become president without even winning a plurality of the votes cast.  That quite undemocratic outcome occurred because our system for choosing the president is hopelessly overcomplicated and confused, and sitting at the heart of that confusion is that embarrassing constitutional relic, the Electoral College.  The Electoral College is our institutional dysfunction come to life.

The Founders created the Electoral College with two principles in mind. The first was the diffusion principle, the desire that the power to pick the president be spread among all the states, even the smaller states that might otherwise be overlooked in a national popular vote.  The second was the aristocratic principle, the belief that a collection of disinterested statesmen would prevent the election of a demagogue or a fool.  But these are practical principles, they weren’t adopted for theoretical reasons, but to satisfy the interests of the various states at the Constitutional Convention.  Many of the founders, including James Madison, the father of the Constitution, would have preferred direct popular election of the president.  Others wanted Congress to choose the president.  The original version of the Electoral College left it up to the various state legislatures to decide how the electors from their respective states were chosen; and for the first few decades some of those legislatures chose them directly, while others allowed their voting publics to decide.  But those electors were expected to make their own decisions, not necessarily rubber-stamp the choices of those that had put them there.  In the early 1800’s, however, as Jacksonian democracy swept the land, all the states switched over to having their populations choose the electors, and law and custom bound those electors to represent the plurality vote for president within their respective states.

And that’s where things stand today.  We’re stuck with this bizarre hodge-podge, an aristocratic structure that tries to channel democratic desires.  But it’s the worst of both worlds, since it can override the national popular vote while – quite obviously! – failing to prevent a demagogue and a fool from becoming president.  The Electoral College has bitterly failed the demands of both democracy and statesmanship, and in doing so it has produced something new in the political world: an unpopular demagogue!

The only remaining remotely defensible rationale for the Electoral College is the diffusion principle, the desire to ensure small states aren’t overlooked when choosing the president.  But the Electoral College does absolutely nothing to force presidential campaigns to address small states.  Instead, it forces them to address battleground states like Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, states which are split down the middle and can easily go either way in a given election.  The campaigns smartly ignore all dependably red or blue states, small or big, such as New York or Kansas.  But there’s no principle satisfied by ignoring those states, while a national popular vote would genuinely spread power to the entire country.  The Electoral College fails the diffusion principle too.

And it’s hard to see why the election within each state should be based on majority rule but not majority rule across the country as a whole.  Why should the democratic principle be so inconsistently applied?   There already is a mechanism within the federal government that gives disproportionate power to smaller states: the United States Senate.  (It should be noted that James Madison and other Founders opposed the undemocratic apportionment of Senators too, but accepted it as a necessary practical condition for bringing into the Union the small states who otherwise would not have joined.)   But Senators represent states, while the president is supposed to be the leader of the country as whole, the leader of the people.  That was clearly the intent of (many of) the Founders, and it was clearly the intent of those early 19th century statesmen who gave the choice of electors directly to the people, and it is clearly the understanding of the present-day voting public.  The president is supposed to represent all of America.

Electors aren’t even apportioned according to population, because each state gets as many electors as it has Representatives in the House of Representatives (which is proportional to state populations) plus two more for its two Senators.  Thus, for instance, Wyoming gets 3 electoral votes (it has one Representative in the House plus its two Senators), while California gets 55 electoral votes (53 Representatives plus 2 Senators).  But California had about 37 million people as of the 2010 census, while Wyoming had only about 564,000.  So California has about 672,000 people for each electoral vote while Wyoming has only about 188,000 for each of its electoral votes.  That means the vote of one person in Wyoming has 3.5 times as much power as the vote of one person in California.  But why should a citizen in Wyoming have so much more power than a citizen in California when picking the one person who is the leader of the country as a whole?  The Electoral College doesn’t protect small states, it disenfranchises big ones!  It’s a failure in every conceivable way.  And it’s clearly failed us this year.

Brilliant, decent, imperfect, practical men, 1787
That’s not to say that Hillary should be president by virtue of winning the popular vote by over 2 million votes (that’s almost 2 percentage points, though with 48.2% it’s still shy of an outright majority).  If we’d had a national popular vote system in place for the 2016 election both Clinton and Trump would certainly have campaigned quite differently, and the popular vote might have gone for Trump.  Still, a lot of people did take the time and effort to vote, even in states that were definitively red or blue.  That is, they must have known their votes couldn’t make a difference in the Electoral College yet they voted anyway; and that deserves respect in a generally democratic society.  It can’t be said that the popular vote means nothing.  And given that the Electoral College system is inherently undemocratic, it’s not consistent to argue that electors are morally bound to obey their state pluralities but obligated to disregard the national one.  Either we respect the wishes of the American people or we don’t.  So it’s not entirely unfair to suggest, as some have done, that the electors reject the state pluralities and deny the presidency to someone who not only failed to win a plurality of the national popular vote but who is also an irresponsible demagogue and a dribbling fool.  In that case both the democratic and aristocratic principles would be satisfied, and that would probably have made James Madison very happy.

All the logic, all the theory, all our reason and sanity and common sense suggest the Electoral College should ignore the wishes of the people in the states and obey the wishes of the people of the United States.  Except for one thing.  We all agreed before the election that we would choose our presidents in this bizarre, old-fashioned, ridiculous way.  Or rather, history and convention and expectation have stuck us with this absurd system, and it would just be terribly unfair and destabilizing to change the rules after the fact.  People would be enraged, and rightly so.  As tempting as the thought is of the electors saving us deus ex machina from the Great Orange Disaster, our respect for fair play and democratic norms renders it unthinkable.  No principle is safe if we can’t all rely on the procedures.

But then let Trump supporters stop this dishonest and baseless talk that he has a “mandate”, or he won because “the American people have spoken.”  No, he won because the Elector College has spoken (or will soon).  Or because enough unrepresentative people in enough unrepresentative states have spoken.  Or because we have our heads stuck up our Constitution and can’t create a better system.  Those sentiments don’t make great slogans, but they have the virtue of being true.  At strongest, the American people chose Hillary Clinton.  At weakest, their choice is unclear and muddled, the exact thing an election is supposed to avoid.

And that is the real problem.  This election, like 2000, was a virtual tie, but the technical winners will enact policies the technical losers find frightening and abhorrent. And to add mendacious insult to juridical injury they’ll likely speak and rule as if they had actually won an overwhelming victory.  They’ll claim a mandate to shred the social safety net and distribute huge tax cuts to the rich.  And if you don’t look closely the Electoral College appears to give them some plausible cover for that undemocratic chicanery.  But that will just add to the bitter disappointment of the vaguely leftish half of the country, who now feel, and effectively are, disenfranchised.  For at least the next two years the comprehensively Republican federal government will trample upon their deeply held convictions and damage the institutions and programs they love, even though their candidate essentially tied.  They don’t deserve that.  We don’t deserve that.

But we’ll get it, and that’s because of other imperfections of our system, specifically Separation of Powers and fixed terms in office.  In parliamentary systems, as obtain in most of the English-speaking world and in Europe, the head of government is whoever can lead a ruling coalition in the democratically elected parliament (and many of those parliamentary elections have mechanisms for making sure minority parties are proportionally represented).  If the party in power governs ineffectively or against sustained popular opinion then elections are held and the people get to choose their rulers again, even if the terms of office aren’t close to being over.  And such a unified government makes the ruling party accountable; it doesn’t have independent executive and legislative branches that can blame each other for government failure or inaction.  And it doesn’t permit the constant war between those separate powers that results when they’re controlled by bitterly opposed and sharply polarized factions.

But wait, this is about as academic as an argument can get.  There is as much chance of America renovating its basic constitution as there is of Donald Trump suddenly becoming an expert on 20th century African-American literature.  Though there are ways around the Electoral College that might actually be implemented – and more power to them!  But the Electoral College, ridiculous as it is, is only a small part of what’s wrong.  One doesn’t have to be a Democrat or bitter about Trump’s technical win to see the lesson the College teaches us: Our deeply polarized populace is possessed by rage and vindictiveness, the design of our political institutions prevents a constructive handling of that polarization, and that combination is radically undermining our democracy.  And it will probably only get worse.

It’s not sustainable, and there are really only two ways this can end: the polarization can give way, or the institutions can give way.  It could still conceivably happen that, as seemed inevitable until November 8, the demographics keep moving in the liberal direction, with the older, whiter, more conservative percentage of the populace shrinking.  Or populist conservatism could become widely dominant among the broad middle.  Or populist liberalism.  If any of those things happens then the federal government will be safely held by one party with a clear majority among the people, and that’s a situation the Constitution can safely handle.  (Though, if it’s Trumpian populism it’s not necessarily a situation that liberal democracy can handle.)  

Doing his best to elevate the discourse
But if none of those scenarios comes to pass, then the institutions themselves will erode.  If Congress and the Presidency are held by opposing parties the conflict between them will become even more acrimonious and destructive.  If our present situation continues – with one party that only represents half the people holding complete control of the federal government – then the struggle between feds and locals will become more acrimonious and destruction.  There could be widespread unrest, with irresponsible individuals on both sides even embracing violence.  And all these scenarios end just one way, with a president accruing more and more police power until he becomes essentially an elected tyrant.  And soon after, not even an elected one. 

That’s the direction we’re heading if we can’t create a better politics, an understanding of ourselves that satisfies the interests and aspirations of most of us.  America is hurting right now, all of it, the half that lost and the half that won.  And the only way forward is toward some new, moderate consensus that respects us all.  If any good can come from Trump’s win, it will be to force us to question the old rigid ideologies and blind archaic animosities that possess us and make us enemies.  There are fair-minded people on both sides urging tolerance and conciliation and offering constructive and pragmatic solutions.  But conciliation and pragmatism have little hope of being well received in an atmosphere of bitter mistrust, a mistrust happily fomented by special interests, propagandists, ideologues, fanatics, and fools.  But when our institutions fail us, all we have left is ourselves, and our commitments to each other.  There isn’t necessarily a happy ending here, only a chance, a hope that the great reserves of good will, common sense and generosity still possessed by the American people can be marshaled to fight the polarization that is killing us all.